Welcome to the King of New York, a borough-by-borough breakdown of every rapper who’s worn the crown. Before we dive in, let's lay some ground rules.
Rule No. 2: Three New York rap hotbeds did not make the cut: 1) Staten Island (passing the crown between Wu-Tang members is not entertaining), 2) Long Island (while Strong Island produced four kings in the ‘80s—Rakim, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, EPMD’s Eric Sermon, and De La Soul—the throne has been vacant for nearly 30 years), and 3) Yonkers (DMX, The Lox, and nobody else).
Rule No. 3: The “King of the Bronx/Queens/Brooklyn/Harlem” crown is given to the rapper who owned their respective borough that year based on a combination of three factors: Musical quality, impact on borough, city, culture, and commercial success.
Rule No. 4: A defending king only loses the crown if they a) stop producing quality work, or b) get blown out of the water by another MC; so, just like in boxing, the crown can change hands in the same year—multiple times, at any given point.
Rule No. 5: For the majority of New York MCs, their borough is clear cut—Biggie is from Brooklyn and Nas is from Queens—but several aren’t so cut and dry. To keep things buttoned up, let’s agree on the following: Prodigy and LL Cool J rep Queens (despite spending much of their childhoods in Long Island); Busta Rhymes and Biz Markie rep Long Island (despite being born in Brooklyn and Harlem, respectively).
With all of that being said, let's jump in.
The Bronx may have created it, to paraphrase KRS-One, but Brooklyn took hip-hop and transformed it into one of the country’s greatest exports. BK boasts the highest concentration of talented rappers in all of New York—if not the entire world. Given that Brooklyn is, by population (2.6 million residents), the biggest borough in New York City, this is hardly surprising. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
Over the last 30 years, BK has produced superstars at an alarming rate across its various neighborhoods, particularly Bed-Stuy (Big Daddy Kane, Biggie, Jay-Z, Fabolous, among others), Brownsville (GZA, AZ, Masta Ace), Fort Greene (Mos Def, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Talib Kweli), and East Flatbush (MC Lyte, Joey Bada$$, Bobby Shmurda).
However, only a handful of Brooklyn-bred rappers have seized the throne. Without further ado, here’s who’s held the King of Brooklyn Title Belt every year since 1988—the year that saw the rise of the borough’s first superstar MC.
Big Daddy Kane, 1988-93
Coronation: The release of his 1988 debut album, Long Live the Kane
Biggest Challengers: MC Lyte, Masta Ace, Special Ed
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘89)
Big Daddy Kane was the pioneer of swagger, hip-hop’s first sex symbol, and most importantly, the original King of Brooklyn. One of the first MCs to perfect the technique of rapping, Kane is one of the most lyrically-skilled MCs the rap game has ever seen and is routinely considered to be one of the 20 greatest rappers ever. And yet, you could make a strong case that he’s underrated.
If anything, BDK was definitely a victim of circumstance. He arrived on the scene during the greatest year in hip-hop history, 1988, right as several of the best NYC rappers of all-time—Rakim, KRS-One, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, Kool G Rap—were operating at the peak of their powers.
If you aren’t familiar with the endless array of classic albums released that year, consider this: Kane’s debut, Long Live the Kane, arguably one of the 10 best rap albums of the ‘80s, wasn’t even one of the five best LPs released that year—ranking behind Ultramagnetic MCs’ Critical Beatdown, EPMD’s Strictly Business, Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Though he’d hit his apex the following year with the release of his sophomore album, It’s a Big Daddy Thing, Kane’s reign continued into the early-’90s, as Brooklyn failed to produce an upstart that could even come close to rivaling his star power.
The Notorious B.I.G., 1993-97
Coronation: His earth-shattering 1993 debut single “Party and Bullshit”
Biggest Challengers: Smif-N-Wessun, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, JAY-Z
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘95, ‘97)
No Brooklyn king ruled in as talented of an era as The Notorious B.I.G. The greatest testament to his reign, then, is that the gap between Biggie and his BK peers wasn’t even close, and for good reason. By 1995, Biggie had snatched the NYC rap mantle from Nas, and was operating as both the Best Rapper Alive and hip-hop’s biggest hitmaker; the BK throne was his, unchallenged.
In the two-year window between ‘95 and ‘97, Biggie defended the title belt—despite not releasing a full-length project—on the strength of a handful of hit singles. In ‘95, a pair of Brooklyn-bred Wu-Gambinos (GZA and ODB) dropped two of the year’s best albums (Liquid Swords and Return to the 36 Chambers, respectively), yet neither was seen as a true threat to Biggie, who was lacing the clubs with hit after hit after hit (e.g. “Big Poppa,” “One More Chance,” “Can’t You See,” “Player’s Anthem”).
And in ‘96, Biggie’s first real challenger emerged, as JAY-Z announced his arrival with one of the very best releases that year (his debut, Reasonable Doubt). When the Bed-Stuy natives linked up on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” Jay held his own while going toe-to-toe with his predecessor, but Big took home the win with a scene-stealing guest spot.
It should’ve been the first of many collaborations between the pair of GOATs; instead, it served as a passing-of-the-torch moment, one that, had Biggie never been killed, would’ve happened much later, if it all.
Coronation: Repping BK on “Where I’m From,” a standout from his 1997 sophomore LP In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
Biggest Challengers: Mos Def, Fabolous
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘99, ‘00, ‘01)
Eight months after Biggie was killed in a drive-by in March 1997, JAY-Z ascended the throne with the November release of his second album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. And if you were to trace his coronation back to a specific moment, it has to be the LP’s penultimate track, “Where I’m From.”
A gritty ode to Brooklyn, “Where I’m From” is a detail-rich portrait of the Marcy Projects where Jay grew up. The opening verse is packed with numerous quotables—"I’m from where the beef is inevitable, summertime’s unforgettable... Who’s the best MC? Biggie, JAY-Z, or Nas?"—while the second verse features one of the best couplets of his career:
“Where you can’t put your vest away and say you’ll wear it tomorrow / Cause the day after we’ll be saying, ‘Damn I was just with him yesterday.’” —JAY-Z (“Where I’m From”)
Peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, In My Lifetime was the last time a JAY-Z album release wouldn’t debut at No. 1 on the charts. From then on, Jay’s reign as the King of Brooklyn was uninterrupted, as he leveled-up with each subsequent offering. Six years and six No. 1 albums later, Jay—who by then was far and away NYC rap’s alpha-dog—retired at the peak of his powers, leaving the BK crown up for grabs.
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Coronation: Linking up with Just Blaze for the biggest hit of his career, 2004’s “Breathe”
Biggest Challengers: JAY-Z, Saigon, Papoose
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘04)
As soon as JAY-Z announced his retirement, most people were quick to anoint Fabolous as the rightful heir to the throne. Possessing the lyrical chops and charismatic star power of his predecessors—Kane, Big, Jay—Fab was one of the more bankable stars in the game; at 25, he’d already scored two certified-platinum albums (2001’s Ghetto Fabolous and 2003’s Street Dreams), a pair of Top 5 hits (“Can’t Let You Go,” “Into You”), and another two Top 25 singles (“Can’t Deny It,” “Trade It All, Pt. 2”).
Still, we weren’t just going to give Fabolous the crown; he needed to take it—convincingly. The summer following JAY-Z’s departure, 2004, Fab staked his claim as BK’s next king on the strength of “Breathe,” the first single from his forthcoming album, Real Talk.
Built around perhaps the greatest beat in the Just Blaze canon, “Breathe” was the undisputed rap anthem of 2004 and the biggest song of Fab’s career, anointing him as the successor to Jay. At that moment, it appeared that we were at the beginning of Fab’s decade-long dominance. Instead, “Breathe” was the closest Fab ever came to touching NYC rap’s throne. Sure, he’d rule BK for the next few years, but Fab would never release a certified classic album, which, ultimately, has become the defining memory of his reign.
Coronation: Scoring his 10th No. 1 album with 2007’s American Gangster
Biggest Challengers: Fabolous, Papoose
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘07, ‘09)
On the heels of JAY-Z’s three-year retirement, the lead-up to his comeback album, 2006’s Kingdom Come, was treated like Michael Jordan’s post-baseball return to the NBA. You know what happened next. The LP failed to live up to our lofty expectations, and the “GOAT is back!” chatter quickly gave way to the “Is JAY-Z washed?” debate.
In hindsight, Kingdom Come was a blessing in disguise, as the failed comeback album set in motion a five-year stretch that would serve as Jay's second creative peak, and in turn, would lay waste to the old adage that hip-hop is a young man’s sport.
Between his 38th and 42nd birthdays, Jay re-affirmed his status as Brooklyn’s Finest by releasing three quality albums: American Gangster (the most underrated LP in his catalog), The Blueprint 3 (produced the first. No. 1 hit of his career, “Empire State of Mind”), and Watch the Throne (which saw him outrap the hottest rapper alive, Kanye, on several of the year’s best songs, no less).
Joey Bada$$, 2012-14
Coronation: The release of his debut mixtape, 1999
Biggest Challengers: Jay Z, Fabolous
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘12)
The youngest rapper to snatch the Brooklyn crown, 17-year-old Joey Bada$$’s coronation left hip-hop heads of all ages feeling conflicted. On the one hand, it was a sobering reminder that not even the GOAT (Jigga) could outlast Father Time. On the other hand, it was oddly fitting that Jay’s successor happened to be a young man with an old soul, who was inspired by the “Golden Era” even though he was merely a baby when Reasonable Doubt dropped.
In the summer of 2012, Joey Bada$$ staked his claim to the BK throne on the strength of his debut mixtape, 1999. Featuring production from Lord Finesse, MF DOOM, and the late J Dilla, it was an era-specific project courtesy of a high school kid who—born in 1995–was exactly the same age as the boom-bap music he was evoking. Perhaps most confounding, though, was that Joey was so good at it; an elite lyricist from the jump, he rhymed like a young Nas and came equipped with a vernacular reminiscent of street poets like Prodigy.
As soon as 1999 became the soundtrack to the streets that summer, Joey was pegged as the future king of NYC rap. Two years later, he was usurped by a fellow Millennial from his own neighborhood, East Flatbush.
Bobby Shmurda, 2014-15
Coronation: Getting a co-sign from hip-hop’s premiere couple, Jay and Bey, on their On The Run Tour
Biggest Challengers: Fabolous, Joey Bada$$
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘14)
In the summer of 2014, an unknown 19-year-old rapper from Brooklyn recorded a two and a half minute, unending verse over a repurposed beat from a two-year-old Lloyd Banks mixtape cut; shot an amateur music video on a nameless street in East Flatbush; threw his Knicks hat in the air, turned his back to the camera, and began twisting his back and arms into some sort of dance routine. At that moment, a star was born.
The rapper, of course, was Bobby Shmurda, the song, “Hot N*gga,” and the hat-toss-jig, the Shmoney Dance. It all began that March when Shmurda uploaded a video to YouTube for the single. It depicted him smoking joints on top of a car and drinking from a Styrofoam cup, alongside his crew of East Flatbush degenerates. Neither the song nor video was especially noteworthy, but together—with the help of Vine, in its final moment of greatness—created a pop culture phenomenon.
That July, Bobby was co-signed by none other than Brooklyn’s Finest, JAY-Z, who, while performing at MetLife stadium, altered a line on "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" and said, "Come Shmoney Dance with the Goodfellas." Moments later, Queen B followed suit by hitting the Shmoney Dance while signing “Flawless.” That’s as close to a passing-of-the-torch as you’re going to get from Jay.
By November, “Hot N*gga” was No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and had climbed to No. 6 on the Hot 100. The music video had 50 million views on YouTube and the hat toss loop had 5 million plays on Vine. Just like that, Bobby Shmurda was hip-hop’s most unexpected success story in recent memory, and most importantly, the King of Brooklyn.
Coronation: His scene-stealing guest verses on Pusha-T’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous” and Fat Joe’s “All the Way Up (Remix)”
Biggest Challengers: Joey Bada$$, Young M.A
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘17)
I’m not entirely sure who’s responsible for JAY-Z’s return to the throne in 2016: The King himself, for only needing to spit two verses to reclaim the crown, or all of his BK peers, for getting washed by a supposedly past-his-prime 46-year-old who hadn’t rapped a verse on wax in two years. Either way, it’s fair to assume Jay looked at the NYC rap landscape, then thought to himself, “Could I, closing in on 50-years-old, still be better than all these fools?” Listen to his verses on “All the Way Up” and “Drug Dealers Anonymous.” You’ll find the answer.
The following year, 2017, Jay laid waste to the playing field once again with the June release of 4:44. The LP debuted atop the Billboard 200 to give him his fourteenth No. 1 album, but most importantly, it served as the third instance in the past decade where he followed up a forgettable project with a certified classic. After Kingdom Come flopped, he returned with American Gangster; The Blueprint 3 felt like a bloated victory lap, so he helped craft the most entertaining hip-hop album of 2011 with Watch The Throne; four years removed from Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay offered up an instant classic, 4:44—at 47-years-old, mind you.
In the two years since his latest full-length solo project, JAY-Z has stayed in the spotlight, linking up with Beyoncé for last summer’s collaborative effort, EVERYTHING IS LOVE, before laying down one of the best verses of 2018—not to mention one of the greatest guest appearances in his career—with Meek Mill’s “What’s Free.”
Are we really sure JAY-Z’s reign as the King of Brooklyn has ever been challenged?